Monday, October 31, 2005

A&G Off to France--Day One

(Author's note: This entry begins two weeks of daily entries about our trip to Provence. You won't enjoy as much as we did, and that's not just a comment about my writing.)

16 October 2005

So we are in France, but it was one of those killer plane-train-bus kind of transport days--one of the few times living in CA seems a mistake as it makes you five hours further from Europe. The flights were fine, if long, if mitigated by getting cushy bulkhead seats with plenty of legroom. Charles DeGaulle Airport is a wonder of modern sprawl planning, down to the central escalator tubes that seem built for human hamsters (but prep you for the tube of the plane, I guess).

Somehow we figured out all the TGV stuff correctly, plus had two hours so no need to rush and plenty of time to wonder why the U.S. can't get some highspeed trains. The TGV itself is not only fast but surprisingly quiet and smooth, with a gentle rocking that sent us both to sleep at various stretches of the trip. Still, awake we saw many charming willages (you have to know your David Sedaris to get that one), EuroDisney (there's no escaping California, after all), Lyon and many white cows.

We took the shuttle bus from the TGV station to the old town section of Avginon and then dragged our wheeled suitcases up Rue de la Republique. The cobblestones on the sidestreets to our B&B La Banasterie announced we were coming. The inn is deceptively plain from the outside, cosy and charming inside (if only I could use this description for myself), with hosts who know enough English to make up for our meager French. Stone walls, a water closet that's really a closet (but I wouldn't hit my head until the'll see)--it seems terribly European.

Trying to insist we weren't travel-adled and nine hours time-changed lagged, we washed up a bit (after all, we'd been in the same clothes since 5 am Saturday CA time and it was Sunday around 2 pm), and hit the Palais des Papes, quite literally Avignon's biggest attraction. As one guidebook says, it's more a fortress than a palace, which makes sense given Avignon's popes were generally under assault. Alas, the site is mostly stripped bare of the wealth and fancy frillery; it's like imagining what people will see when they tour the Vatican in 2392 and just get to see walls (if the RC Church's ban on gay priests doesn't kill the doddering institution off before then). The entrance fee includes an audio guide that looks like a cross between a phone and a remote (clearly designed to bring up a host of pleasant non-historical, that is fun, related associations) and offered way too many possible entries on every detail of the building, the Avignon papacy, and arts in the 14th century. It's as if the tapes hoped to make full the unadorned, if cavernously spectacular, rooms. And the narrator in English sounded like Eric Blore, but he never belittled Edward Everett Horton and he needed a joke or two.

The studiousness of the narration, coupled with the intense imagination needed to grasp the true grandness of what we saw, got us both tired, so we powered un-audio-guided through the last third, only to end up at La Boutellerie du Palais des Papes, where I got to do my first French degustation. Thank you, Jesus, for the fruit of the vine, and your servants the popes for being very much men of the earth. We tasted Caves des Vignerons de l'Enclave des Papes "Les Coudriers" 2004, a very full rose (Grenache based? just guessing); a Ls Vignerons Reunis de St. Cecille Les Vignes "Les Colombes" 2003 Cotes du Rhone that would be a terrific house wine, especially if your house were in Provence; a Cave de Rasteau "Prestige" (their quotes) 2001 Cotes du Rhone Villages, a bit less rustic than the Les Colombes; and a Chateau de la Gardine "Cuvee Tradition" 1998 Chateauneuf-du-Pape that had all the usual lovely mix of rose and cherry and dust and violet plus some hickory smoked bacon to boot (or maybe that's leather).

From there we wandered the incredibly lovely Rocher-des-Domes, which features lots of family action--French kids just seem cuter to me, maybe because I can't understand them--a nifty grotto, wide-angled views of the Rhone and Avignon, and ponds with swans. We clambered down from the heights of the park to Pont Saint-Benezet, the famous Avignon bridge that's now more a pier as 2/3 of it washed out in the 1600s. Now that's staying power, when you can discuss parts of yourself you've missed for four centuries. It's a prime view spot for the Rhone and picturesque at a distance but a bit of a let down to walk on and we don't understand why you would build a chapel on a bridge, let alone two.

We then had to fight to stay awake for dinner, as our time-tripping travels began to catch up to us. Restaurants don't start serving until 7 and more likely 7:30, which is generally early for us to eat in the States, but generally we aren't operating on 4 hours of sleep two night in a row, including a night we jetted into eagerly. We walked all over town, windowshopped, saw waterwheels.

Finally we could go to La Vache a Careaux, just around the corner from our B&B. It's a charming low-key place with a sign of a multi-colored cow and features wines and cheeses without any of the affect of such a place in the States. Here we order an impressive double-decker cheese and charcuterie plate that was full of deliciousness (ah olives, succulent salami, choice cheeses) and side salads of the freshest greens in a perfectly balanced balsamic vinaigrette (nothing like ace ingredients to make the simple sing). And we drank a tannic and tasty (fruit forced its way round them tannins, we insist) Les Grandes Vignes Cotes du Rhone 2004.

During dinner a French couple next to us, who didn't seem unusually flirty otherwise, surprised me a bit. Both their and our table were in a small alcove from which patrons could get to the restrooms. When the woman of the couple went to go, she got behind the beads separating the bathroom entrance from where we sat and hiked her skirt up for her boyfriend, flashing both her panties and a saucy smile (not in the same anatomical location, ok?). Somehow I looked up to catch something not meant for me, and quickly looked away. It wasn't a thong she was wearing. I didn't see England this trip, but I saw France and I saw a French girl's underpants.


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